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State personalized learning plans need common definition, more support, researchers say

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

LAWRENCE — In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act, the most recent piece of major federal education policy, required and incentivized states to address the needs of individual learners through practices including personalized learning. University of Kansas researchers have co-written a pair of studies showing that while all states have addressed personalized learning in their official state policies, there is no common definition for what the practice can be and little agreement on how to implement or support the practice.

Personalized learning is the practice of designing education curriculum to match the needs of individual students based on their strengths and interests instead of using a one-size-fits-all approach. Although personalized learning has gained support from policymakers and researchers, the nation still has much work to do to implement it on a mass scale, starting by defining exactly what personalized learning is, the researchers said.

The study authors analyzed ESSA plans for all 50 states, and four major themes emerged: definitions of PL, goals of PL for students, supports for PL and partnerships. The study was co-written by Ling Zhang and Sohyun Yang, recent doctoral graduate and doctoral candidate in special education at KU; and Richard Allen Carter assistant professor at the University of Wyoming and a KU alumnus. It was published in the Journal of Research on Technology in Education. 

Among the key findings was that several organizations and states had attempted to define what personalized learning is or should be, but there was no consensus, and not even every state attempted definitions in their policies.

“There was no common definition of what personalized learning is, so we wanted to understand better what they thought it is or can be,” Yang said.

The lack of a common definition led to varying goals on what states hoped to achieve through personalized learning, though common themes did emerge. A handful of states each stated goals of providing well-rounded educational opportunities, alternate pathways to skill attainment and graduation, using PL to benefit marginalized populations of students and school improvement through the practice.

“These main goals emerged from states’ guidance on PL. Some wanted to use it to improve the entire school itself instead of focusing on individual students,” Zhang said. “Only a few states had guidelines on how to use PL for students in marginalized groups like those with disabilities, homeless or migratory students. Also by reviewing research on personalized learning, we found a few studies included students with disabilities as participants, and one study explicitly excluded students with disabilities, even though it is supposed to be for all students.”

In terms of support for personalized learning, the analysis found states focused largely on professional development for teachers and administrators, but others also described funding, technology and resources in their policies. While all four components are related, varying state laws, especially for how education funding can be used, prevented widespread consensus on how the required practice could be supported.

The fourth major theme, partnership, revealed that states primarily focused on partnering in one of two ways to implement personalized learning. Primarily, policies emphasized partnerships between school districts to support each other in use of the practice, while others emphasized partnering with private organizations that provide educational technology training and support.

The authors made several recommendations. First among them is the need for a consistent definition of what the practice is. To that end, the authors recommend the development of a conceptual framework for personalized learning, based both on research and successful, comprehensive PL policies such as those in place in New Hampshire and Tennessee. Such a definition should also specify that personalized learning is a way to provide well-rounded education to all students, including those with disabilities or from marginalized groups, create alternate pathways to skill attainment and graduation, and push for schoolwide improvement, the authors argue.

Technology and the role it can play in delivering personalized learning to students should also play a role in policy and an integrated approach to implementation, involving the concerns of all stakeholders such as administrators, teachers, parents and policymakers as well, researchers said.

“Policymakers need to decide how to define PL and then have clear policies about how to implement it in their schools and states,” Yang said. “To move PL forward, we need to consider how to build these supports at an integrated level.”

The authors said additional research in personalized learning is necessary to support good policy, and that it can also focus on how to help teachers implement it to their students’ benefit in classrooms and through blended learning every day. An additional study by Zhang, Yang and James Basham, professor of special education at KU, published in the journal Educational Research Review, found that the majority of research in personalized learning is in the early stages, focusing on the role of technology and contextual factors in implementation, leaving room for study on how the approach can be undertaken on a whole-school level.

While the research was conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, the authors said the challenges presented to education by forcing schools to close, teach remotely and examine their daily practices can in fact be an opportunity to improve how educators reach each individual student.

“Ironically, this crisis has been an accelerator for changing the way we think about how we deliver education to every student,” Zhang said. “It has opened more conversations about how to redefine the personalized learning experience for both students and teachers.”

Photo: iStock.

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